Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 “Black Mass”: A Diabolical Landscape

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9, completed in 1913, inhabits a haunting, diabolical landscape. The single-movement work begins with distant, mournful descending chromatic lines which outline Scriabin’s iconic “mystic chord,” a hexachord built on fourths which the composer described as “smoky.” In its purest form, the “mystic chord” dissolves harmonic function, leaving us with blinding sound. The marking, Legendaire, over the first bar suggests that we are being lulled into an unsettling dream …

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Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings: Folk Music Meets the Concerto Grosso

Béla Bartók wrote the Divertimento for String Orchestra over the course of fifteen days in August of 1939. The three-movement piece was commissioned by the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher, who provided Bartók with a comfortable chalet in the Alpine village of Saanen, Switzerland. Three years earlier, Sacher had commissioned the composer to write the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Now, he requested …

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Bach’s Musical Offering: The Ricercars

J.S. Bach’s monumental chamber music collection, Musikalisches Opfer (The Musical Offering), was inspired by a momentous meeting. It began on May 7, 1747 when Bach met Frederick the Great in Potsdam. At the time, J.S Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was employed as one of the Prussian King’s most prized musicians. Frederick gave the elder Bach a tour of his palace, showcasing his vast collection of instruments, among which was a novel new keyboard …

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Schumann’s “Nachtlied,” Op. 108: The Gentle Approach of Sleep

Robert Schumann’s Nachtlied, Op. 108 for eight-part chorus and orchestra drifts into the serene, magical world of sleep. Schumann composed this autumnal choral song over the course of a week in November, 1849. It is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) in which death is met first with fear and then with acceptance. The song begins with a sense of haunting mystery, with the obsessive repetition of a short, disjointed motif. There …

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Remembering Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink, the renowned Dutch conductor and violinist, has passed away. He was 92. Haitink served as chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1961 to 1988. Additionally, he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1967-1979), music director of the Glyndebourne Opera (1978-1988), music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from (1987-2002), chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden (2002-2004), principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1995-2004), …

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Remembering Edita Gruberová

Edita Gruberová, the Slovak coloratura soprano, passed away in Zurich on October 18. She was 74. Gruberová made her operatic debut in 1968 at Bratislava’s National Theatre, performing the role of Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. In 1970, she escaped communist Czechoslovakia and appeared at the Vienna State Opera as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. She would remain closely associated with this role throughout her career. In …

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Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G Major: A First Farewell

Johannes Brahms intended for the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 to be his final piece. In a December, 1890 correspondence with his publisher, Simrock, the 57-year-old composer slipped in the message, “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.” Around the same time, Brahms told a friend that he “had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old …

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